'Cool Factor' Of Electric Cars Attracts Fans

Jul 28, 2016

Our series “Behind the Battery Boom,” explores how Tesla is shaping the local landscape. Here in Northern Nevada, a group of electric car enthusiasts is working to build a bigger fan base. 

Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray spent time at one of their events to learn more.

On a breezy summer afternoon in downtown Reno, a few dozen people are gathered for an event hosted by the Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada, or EAANN, a group of electric vehicle, or EV, devotees. 

They’re in the parking lot of the National Automobile Museum, where Jay Hubbard is the Automotive Collections Manager.

“I’m finding that people are very surprised,” Hubbard says, “to find out that electric cars were actually some of the first automobiles in operation as far back as the middle of the 19th century.”

Onlookers are inspecting the old-fashioned 1914 Detroit Electric that’s on display next to a few of its contemporaries like a cherry red Nissan Leaf and a sleek, white Tesla. Hubbard is explaining how the antique car worked.

He says EV technology has evolved since then.

“We've improved materials, of course. The batteries and chargers are much lighter and easier to work with than they are in the Detroit,” Hubbard explains, “so it makes it much more appealing to drive an electric car.”

Hubbard is not surprised to see modern technology breathing new life into old concepts.

“One thing I have learned in and around the museum and collecting old cars,” Hubbard says, “is that there really is nothing new, we’ve tried it all at least once.”

A group of people gathered around Automotive Collections Manager Jay Hubbard to hear him talk about the features of the 1914 Detroit Electric.

Chuck Swackhammer is chairman of EAANN and his motivation for driving an EV is to reduce his carbon footprint.  

“Once I found out about the climate change problem,” Swackhammer explains, “that’s when I decided to go all the way into solar power and electric vehicles.”

For Swackhammer, driving EVs makes sense for his lifestyle since he likes to stay close to home.

“I know I can go from my house in Verdi to Carson City and back. I can go to Fernley and back,” Swackhammer says, “I can go to Tahoe City and back, or Incline and back. Cold Springs and back, that’s the size of my world.”

A black and white hearse parked at the museum belongs to hacker-maker William Brinsmead; he cares about the environment but he also enjoys the fun of converting cars.

“I have a leaf, I have the hearse, I have the Tesla,” Brimsmead says, “and they’re all charged off a rather large 11 kW [kilowatts] solar array.”

Brimsmead converted his 1973 Cadillac hearse to electric and still remembers going to the DMV to get his plates.

“So I pulled in with that and I say, ‘Hey it’s electric’ and the guy just starts laughing and he says, ‘Yeah, right, open the hood’ and I open the hood up and his eyes get big,” Brismead says. “He stands back with a weird look on his face, he motions to the window where the other inspectors are, ‘Guys come out here, you gotta see this.”

Brimsmead has been a fan of electric cars since he built his first hybrid in the ‘70s while overseas in the military. He says it’s been exciting to see how Tesla has shaken up the EV industry.

William Brimsmead converted a 1973 Cadillac Hearse to electric.

“They [electric cars] didn’t used to perform all that well, but they’re pretty reliable, inexpensive transportation until Tesla came along…that really flies,” Brimsmead says. “The only electric cars that were as fast as Teslas or even faster were custom-built racing cars that some guys built.”

Also part of the group is Cynthia Ryan, who’s the only female member. She’s a relative newbie and has been behind the wheel of a Nissan Leaf for about two years. Ryan says the EV community is at a tipping point.

“I think we’re getting a sea change of members that aren’t the hacker-maker, but rather they are the tech person, the entrepreneur, the business person, maybe between 30 and 40,” Ryan says, “and they’ve discovered these cars and the cool factor. It’s no longer the BMW that you must have; it’s now the Tesla that you must drive to show that you’re really part of the group.”

A Tesla owner displays car at National Automobile Museum.
Credit Anh Gray

Ryan would like to see the public more interested in electric cars. And with Tesla’s Gigafactory in Reno’s backyard, Ryan says she’s disappointed the company hasn’t taken a more active role in the community.

“You might have actually come out here with a reasonable expectation that maybe Tesla would have been here,” Ryan says, “at least had a car, a representative. That’s a little discouraging at this point.”

For now, Ryan and other EV fans remain a small niche market. Attention to the industry has definitely heightened since Tesla came on the scene with its vamped up technology and futuristic designs. But, what many people are waiting to see is whether the next generation of electric cars will gain enough traction in the years to come.